Ultrasound bill advances

Published 12:42 am Sunday, January 29, 2012

By Michael Bodine

Capital News Service

A bill requiring a woman to get an ultrasound before having an abortion has cleared a crucial committee and been sent to the Senate floor for a vote next week.

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All eight Republicans on the Senate Education and Health Committee voted in favor of the measure, Senate Bill 484, which was sponsored by Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel, R-Winchester. All seven Democrats on the panel voted against it.

After Thursday’s 8-7 vote, the proposal will be considered by the full Senate on Monday.

SB 484 says that before a pregnant woman gets an abortion, an ultrasound exam must be performed and the woman must have an opportunity to view the sonogram image of her fetus and hear the fetal heartbeat.

“Twenty other states have done it. I think you’ll ultimately find that most states will do it. It passes with a huge amount of bipartisan support,” Vogel said. “Almost 60 percent of women support it. Why wouldn’t you want to be more educated about the procedure you’re going to undertake?”

Opponents say the proposed law would interfere with a woman’s right to have an abortion and with the doctor-patient relationship.

“It’s a major step back for women’s health issues,” said Sen. Ralph Northam of Norfolk, a doctor. “I’m also concerned as a provider that this is the government getting in our business and telling us how we should practice medicine.”

Northam, a professor of neurology at Eastern Virginia Medical School, was among the seven Democrats on the Senate Education and Health Committee who opposed SB 484.

Historically, Democrats have controlled that committee and the Senate as a whole and have been able to stop many bills they saw as attacks on abortion rights. This year, the Senate is split 20-20 between Democrats and Republicans, and Republicans have a one-vote advantage on the Senate Education and Health Committee – which was all they needed to advance the bill.

Four bills before the General Assembly this year would mandate an ultrasound before an abortion. Sen. Ralph K. Smith, R-Salem, a member of the Education and Health Committee, proposed such legislation – SB 279. It was incorporated into Vogel’s bill before the committee’s vote.

Two Republican delegates — Mark Cole of Fredericksburg and Kathy Byron of Lynchburg  —also are sponsoring ultrasound measures: House Bill 261 and HB 462. Such legislation is likely to pass the House, which is dominated by Republicans.

Northam said he believes that a sonogram requirement would make it more difficult for a woman to obtain what is a legally available procedure.

“It severely and significantly affects the provider-patient relationship,” Northam said. “That is a decision that should be between the physician and the patient, and the government should have nothing to do with it.”

Vogel said that the purpose of her bill is informed consent and that she does not want the legislation to get tangled up in the debate over abortion.

Currently, women seeking an abortion have the option to get an ultrasound.

Under SB 484, an ultrasound would be required to determine the gestational age of the fetus. The medical professional who performs the sonogram exam would have to get “written certification … whether the woman availed herself of the opportunity to see the ultrasound image or hear the fetal heartbeat.”

Vogel said she believes that the bill will draw enough bipartisan support in the Senate to pass and that it eventually will go to Gov. Bob McDonnell to be signed into law.

Northam reluctantly agreed.

“I would predict, and I can certainly never be in a position to speak for my fellow senators, but it will prevail on the floor in, I would say, probably like a 22-18 vote – in that ballpark,” Northam said.

The Family Foundation of Virginia, which opposes abortion rights, hailed Thursday’s vote as “the first passage of a substantial pro-life bill through the Senate Education and Health Committee in nine years.”

NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia, which supports abortion rights, said the bill “invades the doctor-patient relationship and forces a patient to undergo and pay for, in some cases, a procedure that may not be medically relevant or necessary.”